I have just got back from a three-week refresher in South Africa. I say “refresher” because it is a reacquainting with once-familiar things. I’m not a native Brit. I find a lot of British stuff fairly weird: like barbecues. Brits think cooking hamburgers and some sort of sausage outside is a barbecue which is just wrong on so many levels. South African barbecues are a whole other species and they are called “braais”. You can’t buy a frullata in Britain; Eggs Bene and all-day breakfasts are very hard to come by and finding a Queen pineapple is a rare and precious occurrence. And there’s the reacquaintance with the weather, the traffic, the big sky and the street vendors; rain on dust, the piet-my-vrou, the thorn trees and the sunsets.
And of course, the language – or more correctly – languages. South Africa has 11 official languages and another whole lot that aren’t official. Isn’t that incredible? Being a language teacher, and more so since living in England where English is pretty much the order of the day, revisiting South Africa, where so many languages are recognised and accepted as South African languages, listening and speaking in South Africa is fascinating. For example, in the broadest sense, when a South African speaks English s/he will have one of 5 accents, depending not so much on where s/he comes from in the country but what the mother tongue is. In Britain, the accent is very much associated with geographical location. In South Africa, grammar inaccuracies come from L1 interference rather than regional peculiarities, as is the case in the UK. In Warwickshire, for instance, you could hear, “I daredn’t tell her”, which is very localised to a certain area, while in South Africa you could hear, “I’ll throw you with a stone,” anywhere in the country as it is a direct translation from Afrikaans, and not regionally specific.
But probably the richest ore for a language teacher to mine in South Africa is the vocabulary. Words from all 11 languages and the rest have filtered into the South African brand of English. Searching the etymology takes you from Gaelic to Malay, Khoi-San to Portguese, isiZulu to English to Dutch and back again. My refresher course in South Africa brought all these words tumbling back and I found myself once more saying things like, “lekker,” “stoep”, “eish”, “tsotsi”, “platteland”, “knobkerrie” ,”indaba” and “kwela” – not as an affectation, but because those are the right words for what I want to say. The English translations are not accurate enough to be right. Translate “vuvuzela”. See what I mean?
And this got me wondering, not about what I teach, but the appropriacy of what I teach. And appropriacy not only of what is said but where, geographically, it is said. I know what an “indaba” is and I can teach anyone to say it and to understand what it means, but in my mind it is not an appropriate term to use for a “conference” or “gathering” anywhere else but in South Africa. The “platteland” doesn’t exist anywhere else but in South Africa and to refer to flat, rural, undeveloped areas of any other country as the “platteland” is just….well…… wrong: just as wandering about saying ,”She’s a canny wee bairn,” unless you’re Scottish, is just silly. I would not teach any student of mine to say these things, but I would perhaps explain what they mean and point out that if in that country or area, the student may hear them.
Similarly, some grammatical aberrations are so local that it sounds ridiculous for someone of another country or language group to affect them. I don’t say, “I’ll throw you with a stone,” when I’m in South Africa because I’m not Afrikaans, nor do I say, “I was sat waiting at the traffic lights”, when I’m in the Midlands. I would sound a bit daft saying, “I haven’t gotten it yet”, as I’m not American or “We’m ‘ere again, us”, as I’m not from the Black Country. And I doubt any English teacher would teach them as standard structures.
But these things are self-evident and, as teachers, we know this. I remember being asked at what point I would consider it my beholden duty to correct a student and this is what I think: correct if it is the lesson’s target structure that is being produced incorrectly, correct if what the student says could be misunderstood and – very definitely – correct if what the student says makes him or her sound ridiculous.